Monday, June 22, 2009

An Unpleasant Welcome

Welcome to the blog! You are reading the first entry on my official blog that you can link to from my official website. Yes, bureaucracy is the source of much evil, but there IS something satisfying about that moment: STAMP! – it’s official. And you walk away from the DMV or the courthouse flooded with gratitude that your life isn’t over, that you can still drive your car or walk around in a free country.

And, sadly, this brings me to the subject of Homeland Security. A very good friend of mine, whom I shall call Mr. E, and who is originally from Saudi Arabia, has lived in San Francisco for 18 years. A few years ago, his children, who grew up in Palestine and Saudi Arabia, decided to come live with him in America. All went well – they came, they saw, they continue to conquer their surprise – until one of his sons, whom I have to call K, was stopped at the airport.
K was carrying a laptop with images of the war in Chechnya. Old images from public news sources. Feeling suspicious, the FBI interrogated him, decided he was fine, and let him go. Then Homeland Security stepped in.
HS interrogated him, and K, being young and eager, answered all of their questions, specifically: have you ever donated money to a mosque? Yes, he said, he had donated a little bit. He didn’t have much money. But apparently this was enough for HS to justify arresting him and putting him in jail, where he has been for the past year and a half, hung in bureaucratic hell, awaiting this or that injunction from this or that judge, or lawyer, or whatever. Dickens is ROLLING OVER IN HIS GRAVE. Kafka is laughing in his. Mr. E, warm and wonderful, lover of all things American, feels angry, shattered and betrayed. 100K in court costs later…well, most of us would be kissing our bankruptcy lawyers and vowing vengeance on the federal government. But Mr. E is soldiering on, because for him, this thing with America has always been more than an affair. Yeah, they might get divorced, but that doesn’t mean it’s over.
Arrested in the first place is kind of surprising, if you knew K. On what charges, you ask? On the charge of “being likely to commit a terrorist act.” Yes, you heard me. Their evidence? About ten years ago, he donated a few bucks to a mosque that was run by Hamas – which, about ten years ago, wasn’t even an official terrorist organization. But now it is. So officially, he has admitted to sponsoring terrorism.
All of this I have learned from his father. I keep thinking there must be more to the story, dark secrets that the government can’t divulge, and that naturally K’s father would deny. But I also worry that Mr. E won’t ever be allowed to know the full story, because there is no story. Or rather, it has little to do with the man being held in prison.
I think that bureaucracy can ruin the best of intentions just as easily as it can disguise true malice in the bright, clean setting of officialdom. Whatever is going on here, K, I want you to remember that you and your family have the right to the truth, and that we’re all behind you.

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  1. First, I would like to tell you how much I enjoyed reading Finding Nouf. Both of my book groups have read it and it has led to many interesting discussions. Homeland Security reminds me too much of the McCarthy years when Americans lived in mortal fear of Communism. So many of the freedoms and rights we take for granted - and that is the key, isn't it? - that we take them for granted - can be denied instantly. I just finished reading Shanghai Girls by Lisa See and the strength of her most recent novel is the clear laser sharp beam of light she focuses on the Chinese American experience from about 1937 to 1957. Near the end she describes a situation very similar to Homeland Security. Within a few short years Americans went from being given a reprieve of the Exclusionary laws to having habeas corpus denied in the Communist hysteria that gripped the national psyche with Mao's rise in power. She makes palpable the fear in the community knowing that at any time someone could be arrested and deported for actions as simple as sending money home to their native village. Even greater was the fear that perhaps America might resort to internment camps for the Chinese as they did with the Japanese. When I first began reading that section of the book I thought, "Thank goodness we have moved beyond that kind of thinking, that we have become wiser." But the truth is we have not. And the frightening thing - the truly Kafkaesque thing - is that once it is put into place there seems to be no one with the skill to untie that bureaucratic Gordian knot. Thank you for reminding us so eloquently and movingly how much we all have to lose in our haste for self-protection. Fiction can be a powerful medium in helping us understand this.

  2. rtsfan, thanks for writing - and forgive my late reply! I've been doing much too much traveling and haven't been here in a while. I appreciate reading your comments. You're right to point out that the details come and go, but whether it's fear of Communism or terrorism, there's is usually a bureaucratic impulse that can be carried too far. Shanghai Girls sounds like it would provide a good analogy/sad backdrop to what may be going on today to a different group of people.